HART staff says it can balance the budget — but with little to spare

Officials with the Amalgamated Transit Union, the bargaining unit for HART bus drivers, complained that employees are being overworked, often working six- and seven-day work weeks.

That figure was not disputed by HART officials. Chief Operating Officer Katharine Eagan said the job of driving a bus is not an easy one, and that junior staffers work on Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Michael Stephens, HART's human resources manager, said that with the economy improving, "sizable" transportation agencies on hiring sprees might come after HART drivers.

Hillsborough County Commissioner and HART board member Mark Sharpe said he took seriously the issues the union presented, adding that the focus needs to be on the customers.

Sharpe's colleague on the county commission and HART board, Sandy Murman, said she was extremely impressed by Seward's presentation but said the agency needed to do more.

"Where's the vision? Where do we want to go?" Murman asked, saying the five-year plan laid out on Monday was fine, "but where do we want to be in 10?" She said the Metro Rapid line that will run from downtown to USF expected to begin next year was "great," but added, "Is that all we want to do?"

HART's CEO Philip Hale calls the five-year plan "static," and said the agency didn't have the money to do anything more ambitious, though he said staff would discuss alternative sources of funding at the next board meeting.

Board member Ron Govin was ambivalent about the future. He said the fact that HART's staff could produce numbers to be self-sustaining over the next five years was beyond his "wildest dreams," but said the reality was the agency wasn't going to expand any of its routes or add service, and that was absolutely antithetical to its mission statement. He said additional riders "are going to swell the system," and wondered where the agency could add another $2 to $3 million a year to enhance the system rather than keep it static.

Next step: The proposed budget goes before the Finance, Governance and Administration Committee on May 21. It then goes before the full board on June 4.

Despite looking at a $1.2 million deficit, increased ridership and flat revenues, the chief financial officer for HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit) says he's found a way to balance the budget for the the next fiscal year, and that the agency should be okay the next four years after that.

Transit agencies like HART and PSTA in Pinellas County have been facing severe challenges in recent years. Their chief source of revenue — property taxes — has been reduced for five consecutive years, while demand for their services is at an all-time high.

CFO Jeffery Seward says HART will balance its budget partly from increased fares, which will rise to $2 from the current $1.75 rate. It also eliminate a route, combine other routes, and reduce the levels of service on certain holidays. The agency will also reduce specific expenses, and use some of those savings to meet increased service demand on other routes.

And the transit agency plans to do this without dipping into its reserve fund.

However, there are strains with the workforce that were acknowledged by both management and labor at Monday morning's workshop.

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